At the age of 18, I left my home in the Midwest and set off on a course that would take me from coast to coast. I went north to Alaska, south to Costa Rica, on to Hawaii and Jamaica, as well as other places most people only dream of. This eight-year adventure wasn’t for fun, but I enjoyed almost every minute of it. I had enlisted in the United States Coast Guard.
After boot camp, my first duty station was the Coast Guard Cutter Sweetbrier. She was a 180-foot seagoing buoy tender that was homeported in southeastern Alaska. Her primary job was to maintain aids to navigation—the system of buoys, channel markers and other signals that help ensure safe navigation along coastal and inland waterways.
Going From Cold to Numb
I reported aboard just after Thanksgiving 1978. It was the first time I had ever been aboard a ship, and it took a while to get used to it. The biggest shock was being dumped in Alaska in the middle of winter. Everything was frozen, and deep snow covered the ground from the surreal mountain tops all the way down to the ocean. It was breathtaking!
With little time for taking it all in, I was hard at work from the moment I stepped aboard the ship. When we weren’t servicing buoys, day boards or shore aids (navigation markers installed on the shoreline), we conducted routine patrols or responded to SAR (search-and-rescue) missions.
One particular job had a significant impact on me. Late in the winter of 1978–1979, the Sweetbrier was scheduled to service a shore aid located atop a point of land that jutted out into the sea. The skies were clear, and even though the sun had only been up a couple of hours, it would be setting in just a couple more. Temperatures were below freezing, and a stiff wind created 3- to 4-foot waves that crashed against the shoreline and the side of the ship. The water temperature was 31 degrees (F), which was the normal average for the time of year.
Shore aids are usually not accessible directly from the ship, so we had to get to it via one of our small boats. Due to the rough seas and the rugged terrain around the aid (essentially a vertical rock wall), we would use our Zodiac inflatable boat to haul the four-person work detail and gear to shore. This operation included replacing the near-exhausted batteries that powered the flashing light in the aid, and the size and weight of the new battery packs would make two trips with the small boat necessary: one for the men, another for the materials.
After everything was ashore, the Zodiac, with its own two-person crew, would standby a safe distance out from the rocks until it was needed for the return trip. I was assigned the task of stepping ashore first and holding the bowline as the other three men debarked and again when the boat returned with the new batteries.
Reaching the shore, I stepped out on a rock ledge and held the line, pulling in and playing out slack as the small boat rose and fell with the waves, tossing the line back after the other three men stepped out.
The first stage went smoothly, but when the boat returned, it took much longer to get the battery packs unloaded. Standing with my back against the rock wall, I could not avoid the occasional splash of cold seawater that eventually soaked me from the waist down. Unable to drain my boots and wring out my socks at that moment, I helped lift the heavy batteries up from the boat and then carried them to higher ground, where the navigation aid was mounted.
I sat down on one of the battery packs and wrestled the now-frozen boot laces free, emptied my boots and squeezed what water I could out of my thick cotton socks; even at that point, my feet were cold and had a waxy appearance.
It took quite some time to service the marker, and even though I was busy the entire time, I began showing signs of hypothermia: My muscles were very stiff, my speech was slurred, and the shivering was becoming uncontrollable. Ice had formed on the outside of my boots, and I could no longer feel my feet. In fact, it felt as if my legs were stumps that ended at my thighs. Each step was a struggle.
The sun was just a sliver on the horizon as we carried the depleted battery packs down to the waiting Zodiac. I noticed the sea level had risen several feet with the incoming tide. The rock I had stood on earlier was now submerged under the frigid water but would reappear briefly as the waves swept out. Still, it was the only place that would provide sure footing from which to hold the boat in position. I half slid down to the rock as the small boat approached and caught the tossed line. As my shipmates lowered the batteries down to the boat, I noticed the water no longer felt cold!
With the battery-laden Zodiac heading back to the ship waiting offshore about several hundred yards, I tried to climb back up the rock face, but my legs would not cooperate. A member of the detail grabbed my life jacket and hoisted me up to dry ground. When the boat returned, the coxswain (boat operator) pushed the rubbery bow into the rocks long enough for us to jump in.
I can’t say I remember the trip back to the ship, but I do remember climbing the cargo net that had been lowered over the side for us. I had to look at each of my hands and will my fingers to close around the webbing that I could not feel, and somehow, my feet found their way into the holes of the net. If not for my shipmates pulling me up onto the steel deck, I don’t think I could have made it aboard.
I was no longer shivering; and the normally bright deck lights were wavy streaks swirling around me. I could not speak.
My next memory was standing in a shower with scalding water raining on my clothed body—boots and all. The ship’s corpsman was standing outside the shower, talking to me in an unrecognizable language. Finally able to speak, I asked him to turn the hot water down. The ship’s doctor, this time speaking in English, informed me the shower water was actually cold.
Over the course of a few days, the blistered skin sloughed off my feet. I lost the nails from both little toes and had to wear bunny boots (oversized rubber boots) for several days until the pain and swelling subsided. With severe hypothermia and frostbite under my belt, I would make darned sure it never happened again.
Into the Storm
Over the next few years, I found myself stationed on some of the (then) newest cutters in the Coast Guard fleet. We were homeported on the U.S. East Coast, so most of our patrols were law enforcement related; drug interdiction then, as now, was a priority, and most cruises were spent boarding suspect vessels. During hurricane season, our attention shifted to the storms. When a tropical storm or hurricane threatened, we would head far out to sea, pre-positioning the ship for rapid response when the inevitable distress call would come.
It’s just a fact that mariners get caught in hurricanes. Ships large enough to ride it out often do, but those on smaller craft, especially sailboats, can quickly find themselves in peril. Sailboats and hurricanes are a bad mix, because sailboats usually lack the speed to outrun a fast-moving storm or are skippered by someone inexperienced in the face of such a threat. Sails can be ripped away, and mast rigging could snap under the strong gales that blow out ahead of the storm wall. Surging waves can tear off rudders, leaving the craft with no way to maneuver out of the storm’s path.
We charged into a storm more than once, arriving in time to get a line to the stricken vessel and tow it out of the fury. Unfortunately, many just had to hang on and hope for the best (in almost every major hurricane, vessels are reported as lost at sea).
Perhaps the boat was too far offshore to make radio contact, had no radio at all or had not paid attention to weather reports. It was in those situations that we would hunt. The searches were often conducted by aircraft (such as the HC-130 Hercules) that could drop emergency supplies to survivors, keeping them alive until a helicopter or cutter could arrive to pull them from the sea.
In some instances, boaters are unaware that a tropical storm or hurricane is headed their way. Weather forecasts and warnings are constantly issued over dedicated radio frequencies, but many boaters fail to monitor them.
All marine VHF radios made today have the NOAA weather frequencies permanently programmed in, but without at least occasionally switching over to the frequency or enabling the “weather alert” function, warnings will go unheard.
If you are venturing beyond the range of VHF signals, medium or high frequency (MF or HF) marine radios should be installed, as well. Advanced distress signaling devices, such as an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) are not required on vessels under a certain size or pleasure craft in general; it is up to the boat’s skipper to determine what is adequate for his or her safety.
As suggested by the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Center,
“Before you purchase anything else, make sure you have a VHF marine radio. A VHF marine radio is the single most important radio system you should buy. It is probably also the most inexpensive. If you plan to travel more than a few miles off shore, plan to purchase an MF/HF radiotelephone or mobile satellite telephone, an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB, and a second VHF radio or cellular telephone, as well. Mobile satellite telephones are becoming more common and more inexpensive. The mobile satellite will provide easier and clearer communications than the MF/HF radiotelephone, but the HF radiotelephone will receive high seas marine weather warnings.” (www.NavCen.USCG.gov)
The U.S. Coast Guard attends public events and performs demonstrations to educate the public on boating safety topics. All across the country, Coast Guard Auxiliary personnel conduct courtesy safety inspections, providing peace of mind that a boater’s vessel is safe to operate and is in compliance with Coast Guard requirements.
Caribbean Rescue Missions
Another pressing mission for the Coast Guard was (and still is) migrant interdiction. Haitian migrants would pack themselves into rickety watercraft and set sail across the Caribbean on a northwesterly course, hoping to make landfall somewhere along the United States coastline. Crammed in like sardines in a can, they had only the clothes on their backs to protect them from the elements, and rarely were any life jackets present.
Leaky boats overloaded with 100 or more people aboard would set out with a single cloth sail that was hung from a makeshift mast—a giant sack of dry rice and a drum of fresh water being their only sustenance for a journey that could for last weeks. Certainly, not all of them made it.
A constant flow of cutters, augmented by aircraft, patrolled off the Florida Coast between the Bahamas, Cuba and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Once located, the migrants were brought aboard the cutters and tended to. Medical issues were addressed, bathing and sanitation facilities were provided, everyone was given bedding, and all were able to eat and drink as much as they desired. Then, with a deck full of migrants, we would head to Haiti and turn them over to government officials.
In 1978, there were slightly more than 40,000 active-duty Coast Guard personnel; that is the same number of men and women currently serving active duty. Today’s Coast Guard has all the responsibilities it had in the past—plus more: In 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard was moved from the U.S. Department of Transportation to the newly created Department of Homeland Security.
Homeland Security missions include Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security, Drug Interdiction, Migrant Interdiction, Defense Readiness and Other Law Enforcement.
Non-Homeland security missions include Marine Safety, Search-and-Rescue, Aids to Navigation and Ice Operations (The U.S. Coast Guard operates the U.S. ice breakers that are responsible for keeping shipping lanes open from the North Pole to the South Pole and the Great Lakes).
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sweetbrier and many more of the pre-World War II era ships that were still in service into the 1990s have been decommissioned (some have been scrapped and some are serving in the navies of other countries). New ships and aircraft, including the MH-60T Jayhawk, are replacing the old assets, thereby allowing the Coast Guard to continue conducting missions vital to the nation’s security and safety at sea more efficiently and effectively.
Technologies and materials designed to protect personnel from the extreme elements reduce the likelihood of hypothermia and other hazards encountered in day-to-day activities. This includes gear that was in short supply or non-existent in the 1970s and ’80s.
The last two ships I served on—U.S. Coast Guard Cutters Tampa and Harriet Lane, are now more than 30 years old … and still going strong. May they continue upholding the highest Coast Guard standards for many years to come. Semper Paratus!
Sharing the Benefits of Lessons Learned
By this time, I was reaching the end of my second tour of duty and decided not to re-enlist. Now, more than 30 years later, I still miss the ships and my shipmates.
But the lessons I learned and the training I received have continued to serve me and the community in the years since, teaching boat safety, explaining the “rules of the road,” channel markers and buoys, and more to boaters.
Working as the manager of a marina, I had the knowledge necessary to prepare a landing area for a helicopter coming in to evacuate a young lady who had been ejected during a boat collision. She was suffering from a life-threatening injury and needed to quickly get to a hospital more than 60 miles away. There was not enough time to transport her by ground.
Were it not for my time as part of the flight deck crew aboard my last two Coast Guard cutters, I would not have known what needed to be done to create a zone that was safe for the helicopter, its crew and the bystanders in a busy parking lot.
There are more examples, but I’ll just say the investment in training me was well worth it. The Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus–Always Ready—is still my guide.